Capital city, colosseum and coastline is how I will remember Croatia this time. The first time in 2013 was simply coastline, having chosen to sail around Croatia on a group tour between coastal cities and islands including Split, Dubrovnik, Korčula, Hvar and lesser known Makarska, Mljet and Trstenik. It brings back memories of jumping off the boat into crystal clear water, waking up in new places and exploring each new town. It was before the Game of Thrones TV series which due to filming in places like Dubrovnik, has made this piece of paradise a now popular tourist destination. This time in October 2017 we chose to spend four days in Zagreb and Pula in Croatia because it was easier for us to get there by train after spending three days in Ljubljana.
Croatia was our fifth stop and country on our three week Interrail trip around Europe. So far we had been to Bruges in Belgium, Strasbourg in France, Bern in Switzerland and Ljubljana in Slovenia. Zagreb is the capital city of Croatia and whilst we really only chose to stop there on the way to Pula, we were pleasantly surprised. Zagreb is a bustling city filled with European architecture and streets dedicated to restaurants and bars. Pula is where you will find the colosseum and the coastline.
So, how many days do you need in Croatia? It really depends which parts you want to see. Four days in Zagreb and Pula was the right amount for us – two nights in Zagreb and two nights in Pula. If you have time to see Split, Dubrovnik and one or more islands, two nights is a good amount of time in each to recover from travelling, familiarise yourself with your surroundings and try a few different experiences and food options before having to pack up and travel to the next destination.
How to get there
From Ljubljana in Slovenia it took just over two hours by train to Zagreb. Departing at 2:45pm, we arrived in Zagreb by 5pm. Our accommodation was a short 10 minute walk from the train station. To get to Pula we caught the bus from Zagreb. The bus journey takes about four hours.
Where to stay
Do yourself a favour and see if The Nook Apartment is available on Booking.com. It only cost us around £40 per night and the host Zana left us a bottle of wine, box of chocolates and free goodies like shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, hair spray and more in a basket on the bed. In the fridge was fruit and yoghurt to pair with the muesli and coffee on the shelf in the kitchen for breakfast. And just outside the door were two bikes for us to use complimentary during our stay. The Nook Apartment is beautifully decorated with unique furniture and fairy lights above the bed. Whilst cosy, The Nook Apartment has all the space that you need for a night in Zagreb.
If The Nook Apartment is already booked, you could try the Green Door Studio Apartment, also on Booking.com. It cost us around £35 per night. It’s in a more central location than The Nook Apartment however is a bit smaller and not as homely. It’s great value for money though and the hosts are friendly there too.
The accommodation host for Apartment Evelina was waiting for us as we arrived from our 15 minute walk from the bus station. It’s in a good location, right across from Mlinar bakery and not far from the Old Town. Inside we had our own lounge room, kitchen and dining table, bathroom and bedroom. For the space and location it was reasonably priced at €90 for two nights on Booking.com.
Things to see and do
Our favourite things to see in Croatia were all in Pula:
- The Pula arena similar to the colosseum in Rome
- The Old Town with its contrast of old and new buildings
- Hawaii Beach hidden away in the trees of Verudela
Where to eat and drink
- Ožujsko Pub Tkalča for its cheap beer and dinner in a great people watching location, total 99kn for two people ($20 AUD or £12)
- Curry Bowl, a Sri Lankan restaurant with fresh hot curries for around 50kn each plus beers
- Oliver Twist pub for more cheap beer in a prime sunny location before the sun sets
- Medvedgrad Illica Pub for, you guessed it, beer but this time with live music
- Zagreb home-made ice-cream near the Nikola Tesla statue if it’s warm enough during your stay
- Jupiter for its pizza and more, local favourite off the beaten path, serving large portions quickly and at a reasonable price of around 150kn for two people including beers ($30 AUD or £18)
- Mlinar bakery, a popular Croatian bakery chain over 100 years old with lots of options for breakfast and lunch around 25kn each ($5 AUD or £3)
Day 1 – The Nook Apartment and Ožujsko Pub Tkalča Pub for dinner
First we wanted to find our accommodation so after rolling our luggage along behind us through the streets for about 10 minutes, we arrived at the address for The Nook Apartment and followed the instructions from our host. Depending on availability and price we often choose accommodation with a balcony and view but on this occasion the apartment was below ground level. Welcomed by the sign on the door confirming it was The Nook, we opened the door to the most charming apartment with beautiful and unique furniture and fairy lights above the bed. A quick sweep and we discovered complimentary wine, chocolates, a basket of bathroom goodies like shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, deodorant, hair spray, dental floss and more, fruit, muesli, yoghurt and coffee for breakfast and two bikes to use during our stay. At a cost of around £40 per night, we were extremely happy with our choice of accommodation. It was certainly value for money.
As we drank the wine and ate the chocolates we used the wi-fi to book more accommodation in Zagreb for when we returned from Pula, and our next destination Budapest. Unfortunately The Nook Apartment was not available for our second night in Zagreb because we were booking so late. Usually we book accommodation much further in advance but for this trip we’d booked accommodation for the first few countries and worried about the rest as we went along. Given we were travelling in October it wasn’t as busy as the peak season leading up to it so we had more options to choose from despite it being last minute.
By the time we’d finished being our own travel agents we considered getting takeaway for dinner and staying in The Nook for the night but were determined to see some of Zagreb. There were markets in the main square called Ban Jelačić Square where there is a statue of a man on a horse but we didn’t stop to browse. We continued walking until we saw a pub called Ožujsko Pub Tkalča with a packed outdoor dining area and one spare table for two. A busy restaurant is always a good sign so we made ourselves comfortable in what turned out to be a great people watching location as people walked past to the nearby street filled with bars. The food was good and it was one of the cheapest meals we’d had on our trip so far. Total 99kn ($20 AUD or £12) for two people including drinks.
Day 2 – Bus to Pula and exploring the Old Town
Today we caught the bus to Pula where we were spending the next two days to see some Croatian beaches and the colosseum. It took four hours to get there and having departed at 10:15am we arrived in Pula with plenty of time to explore in the daylight. Our accommodation host was waiting for us to show us how to use everything in the apartment and give us the keys. Our snacks from the bus station in Zagreb had kept us going but as soon as our host left, we went for a walk around the nearby Old Town to find some lunch.
The Old Town is a must see when you’re in Pula. There are Roman ruins to explore and restaurant options outdoors where you can stop, take a seat and study your surroundings. We didn’t stop to eat there, instead we decided on Bistro Alighieri in an area we thought might be less expensive. After taking a seat and reading the menu, it was still slightly above our budget but we were desperate at that time of day so managed to find a few things on the menu that didn’t blow the budget too much.
It was quiet with only a few others at the restaurant and a couple of people and cats passing by. If like us you enjoy travelling without many other tourists around, October is a good time to visit Croatia. Particularly these less touristy locations. We wandered back through part of the Old Town to our apartment where we stayed for the rest of the night enjoying snacks, drinks, a scary movie and some late night ice-cream thanks to Harry going for a walk across the road to buy some. It was an early night so we were fresh for a day at the beach and the colosseum tomorrow.
Day 3 – Hawaii Beach, Pula Arena and Jupiter Restaurant
After looking out the window at the street below from our accommodation in Pula, it was time to try the Mlinar bakery. It was perfect to grab a quick takeaway breakfast and keep moving. Harry had left his reusable water bottle at Bistro Alighieri yesterday so that was our next stop. Thankfully they still had it! We gave them a big smile and thank you and continued on to the bus stop. We were off to the beach today. Harry’s first Croatian coastline experience! The buses departed every 10 minutes and the journey itself only took around 10 minutes.
Verudela beach was our choice for the day and we were not disappointed. Even though the fortress ruins which were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire were closed for what appeared to be either an event or renovations, we found Hawaii beach. A little piece of paradise with less than a handful of people to share it with. Hawaii beach is a cove with stairs leading down to the white but rock covered sand where you can safely leave your belongings before plunging into the clear blue water. It was so beautiful that I had to FaceTime Dad to show him what we had discovered.
We could have stayed there all day except that after all that exploring and swimming, we were ready for lunch. After a few failed attempts to find a place that suited our style and budget, we found the E&G club. They have an outdoor area on a balcony overlooking the green grass and pathway where our Verudela Beach adventure began. With the cash we had left on us, we bought a few local beers and some hot chips. Lucky we had been exercising for most of the morning!
After a short wait at the bus stop, we made our way back to Pula to explore the colosseum. The sun was going down and we were eager to see it in as much sunlight as we could. Both having seen only the outside of the colosseum in Rome, we wondered what was inside this very similar colosseum in Pula. Turns out most of the inside had been removed to build the Cathedral and other buildings in Pula but it was still interesting to stand in the centre and imagine what used to happen in this very spot. Part of the amphitheatre seating made out of stone is still there and you can explore underneath the arena where they used to make and distribute olive oil. The old equipment and roman style clay jugs are there on display. At this time of day there were less than 10 people exploring the arena. Rare to have photos at attractions like these without others in the background!
Seeing as we were still in our beach clothes, we walked back to our accommodation to get changed for dinner. Walking through the Old Town really is beautiful, especially as the sun is going down. Tonight we decided on a place called Jupiter for dinner. It’s a pizza restaurant and whilst we can confirm the pizza is good, we also had chicken skewers wrapped in bacon on a bed of vegetables. They were mouth watering and all generous portions. The food and atmosphere at what was obviously a local favourite restaurant was worth the dark and hilly walk from our accommodation. We weren’t too concerned anyway, the reviews we read in advance had said as much.
Day 4 – Bus back to Zagreb and Sri Lankan for dinner
Breakfast at Mlinar was so convenient yesterday that we decided to go back today before catching the bus back to Zagreb. We were travelling with a different bus company today called Auto Trans. It was a bit more expensive than our bus to Pula and they charged a small amount to store our luggage underneath the bus but it was comfortable, just like our bus journey to Pula.
Tonight we were staying at a studio apartment called the Green Door. We arrived earlier than our check in time and the hosts were still cleaning the apartment so we left our bags there and set off to explore more of Zagreb. We’d only spent a night in Zagreb so far so we were looking forward to seeing Zagreb in the day time. We took the opportunity during our sightseeing in the sun to try some ice-cream from a shop near the Nikola Tesla statue.
We passed the Cathedral and found a buzzing street called Ul. Ivana Tkalčića full of restaurants and bars and stopped for a drink at Oliver Twist. We decided that we would come back to this area later for dinner but for now we had to go back and check into our accommodation. The Green Door apartment was cosy, smaller than our other accommodation at The Nook apartment but had everything we needed and was clean and comfortable. The location was also more central.
For dinner we tried the Sri Lankan restaurant Curry Bowl on the same street as Oliver Twist. The curry with rice was absolutely delicious. A bit spicy but we each had a large Lion beer to drink. The restaurant had an outdoor area with fire heaters and the people behind us had a Schnauzer dog with them. Love!
To end our second and final night in Zagreb we had a drink at Medvedgrad Illica Pub where there was live music and went to the SPAR to spend our last Croatian kuna currency to buy something for breakfast and lunch on the train tomorrow.
Day 5 – Train to Budapest
It was time to check out of the Green Door apartment for our train departing at 10:02am. Next stop? Budapest! Six hours by train from Zagreb. Have you travelled across the border by train before? It is quite the experience getting your passport checked whilst on the train as you cross from one country to the next.
Now, what to see and do in Budapest…